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Tuesday, July 31, 2012 - Police Deaf Near Far Opening the Theatre Season

 by Gillian Ellis

This fall the theatre program will open its production season with the Michigan premiere of Police Deaf Near Far by David Rush, a complex play that explores challenging topics, many of them revolving around how the hearing and the Deaf communities relate to each other. For the first time ever at OU, every performance will be accessible to both hearing and Deaf patrons.

Every year since 1998, the theatre program has offered some signed shows. Theatre Professor Karen Sheridan, who has an extensive background in mime, had worked in theatre for the Deaf in her hometown of Chicago and had long been committed to creating theatrical experiences for the Deaf community. At OU the perfect opportunity arose with the production of Children of a Lesser God in April 1998, which Karen directed.

The two leads in the show had lines in sign language and Karen needed someone who could coach them. She contacted the university’s Special Needs Office and was given the name of Shelly Tocco, a freelance interpreter for the Deaf who specialized in theatre. Shelly recalls receiving a phone call “out of the blue” from Karen and she also remembers that the two student actors, Matthew Hammond (B.A. Performing Arts '99) and Kimberly Lucius (B.A. History and Musical Theatre '01), worked hard and learned their signed lines well. During the course of the rehearsals, Karen realizing that Deaf patrons would want to see this show, found funding to contract with Shelly and her colleague Dan McDougall to sign interpret one performance. “We platform interpreted,” says Shelly. “We stood off to the side.” For Deaf audience members this is a less than optimum experience.

Shelly and Dan are the co-founders and co-managers of TerpTheatre, which offers shadow-signing, an interpretation experience which is an art in itself and can be enjoyed by all members of the audience. Their website explains it best. “While TerpTheatre’s team members have worked in a variety of sign language interpreting settings, our specialty is shadow interpreting on stage. Shadowed interpreters are placed on-stage with actors, and move throughout the stage space so that audience members can see the actor and understand dialogue at the same time. Since 1987, members of TerpTheatre have partnered with professional and community theatres throughout Michigan. In this unique approach, interpreters compliment the performance – and Deaf patrons participate more fully.”

Shelly Tocco also interprets for the Deaf in Video Relay and for the Deaf and Blind, but she began specializing in theatre work and shadow-signing shortly after her graduation from Madonna University with a degree in Sign Language and Deaf Culture. Her first performance was in Alice in Wonderland at the Wild Swan Theatre in Ann Arbor in 1986. Dan McDougall is the chair of Sign Language Studies at Madonna University.

In the winter of 2000, Shelly and Dan shadow-signed their first show at OU – Translations – and in the years since, TerpTheatre has joined OU’s students on stage in everything from musicals to Shakespeare, to children’s productions. These performances always sell out and are popular with many who have no need of the interpretive element they offer. They also raise awareness of Deaf culture, as does the interpreters’ presence at rehearsal for our students. In 2011, the lasting contribution TerpTheatre has made to our theatre program and beyond was recognized when Shelly Tocco and Dan McDougall were given Music, Theatre and Dance’s MaTilDa Award for their community service.

Shelly says she saw Police Deaf Near Far at Stage Left in Chicago when it was first performed ten years ago and has wanted to be involved in a production ever since. The drama is sparked by a moment of miscommunication and conflict between a police officer and a Deaf man, and it addresses an all too common problem for both the law enforcement and Deaf communities. And yet, the play has hardly ever been staged. It demands a complicated mixture of hearing and Deaf actors; of signing for those who speak and having actors give voice to those who sign. See a YouTube video about the cast, including interviews with the professional Deaf actors, here.

Karen Sheridan will direct Police Deaf Near Far and Shelly says, “Not every director would be confident working with Deaf actors.” She also notes that the project has been under consideration for some time. “As our involvement in your program’s projects grew and the professional relationship between us deepened I think OU felt more confident in taking on a show of this magnitude. It had to be a partnership to do this.”

Shelly says that throughout TerpTheatre’s 14-year partnership with the theatre program, Karen has been their champion. “She’s always been the one to go after the money!” And over the years the College of Arts and Sciences has been generous in its support.

Dean of the College Ron Sudol says, “l have been very supportive of interpreting plays for the Deaf. [It] is inherently theatrical and beautiful, and as such it adds a new dimension to performances. I first saw signing many years ago at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in Waterford, Connecticut, my hometown. I think it must have been Oedipus Rex, and I found it powerful and transformative. Then, a few years ago I saw a production in New York of Big River, a musical based on Huckleberry Finn, in which all the main characters were played simultaneously by hearing and signing actors. It worked beautifully. In addition, I've had a lot of contact with people involved in educating the Deaf because my sister has had a long career as a teacher of the Deaf in New England. By all reports, the signed interpretations of our plays at Oakland have had a similar effect on audiences – hearing and hearing-impaired alike.”

The College of Arts and Sciences is continuing its support this year and Police Deaf Near Far is receiving additional funding from the Judd Family Endowed Fund, but TerpTheatre is also seeking support through Kickstarter. Shelly explained that working with Deaf actors means that, under Michigan law, licensed sign language interpreters must be at every rehearsal and backstage at every performance. There will also be interpreters at the after-show talkbacks. Terptheatre is running a Kickstarter campaign to raise $12,000 by August 15 and if you would like to help or read more about the campaign you can do that here.

Police Deaf Near Far opens on October 4 and runs through October 14. Get more details here or visit our homepage to check OU’s online Web calendar or request a season brochure. Tickets for this show will go on sale online through StarTickets on September 1 and the box office will open September 18. Ticket information is available here.

Everyone involved in the production of Police Deaf Near Far is conscious of the profound responsibility they have to accurately address the difficulties faced by both law enforcement officers and members of the Deaf community in situations like the one portrayed in this play. The team hopes to see many members of both groups in the audience. And they hope to see you.

It will be a night of high drama and high art. OU may never again offer 12 chances to see the shadow-signing of a single production and this really may be your only chance to see Police Deaf Near Far in production. Get your tickets early!

Police Deaf Near Far poster designed by Jeremy Barnett
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